Monday, June 20, 2016

Love & Friendship (2016)

A costume period piece based on an obscure Jane Austen literary property was not what I expected from Whit Stillman for his third movie in 20 years, but why not? His last, Damsels in Distress, is five years old now, and the one before that, The Last Days of Disco, came out in 1997. Both have outsize preoccupations with international dance crazes. Spoiler alert: There is no international dance craze in Love & Friendship. But Stillman remains, however, engaged in pitched battle with his New York Upper East Side betters—in fact, it may be more ferocious than ever, as he enters a time machine and travels back to sneer at their putative heirs, the foolish aristocracy of the early 19th century, when the French and American revolutions were even then casting creeping deep long shadows. Every review I've seen of Love & Friendship touts Kate Beckinsale's performance as Lady Susan Vernon, and she's good, but it was Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin who broke me down and closed the sale. His boyish good looks and stammering good-hearted dim bulb dignity are priceless. It's the same kind of stupidity we saw in Damsels in Distress with Thor, the fraternity brother whose shame is that he never learned the names of the colors. Here Sir James, similarly, is amazed at dinner by what is evidently the first encounter in his life with peas. I don't know Jane Austen's source piece, which is actually the unfinished novel Lady Susan, and not the very early novella Love and Freindship [sic]. It's hard to say how true the events of this movie are to her original story. It more often feels like pure Whit Stillman and not at all like Austen. But she contributes the general setting, language, and preoccupations of society and it also has the tang of one of her complicated narratives playing through, as the eligibles with their various virtues and motivations get busy sorting themselves out. That's where Lady Susan particularly comes in, as linchpin to the story, and that's where the accolades for Beckinsale naturally start. To be clear, this movie has an occasional tendency to steer into genteel BBC stand-there-and-drop-the-dialogue territory. There are dead patches. I happened to have someone sketchy sitting too close to me—he was drinking a beer at my usual Tuesday morning matinee, and he smelled a little. I noticed the dead patches in the movie because I became more aware of him then. But even as I verified my exit points visually the movie would pull me back into it. Lady Susan is a classic model of manipulating society villainess. She is brazen and comically powerful, able to get away with anything. Beckinsale is obviously having a ball but she's restrained. Stillman is having a ball too, but he's less restrained, and it ends up becoming infectious. It's on the level of 12-year-olds sitting in church helplessly laughing about the preacher's use of the word "duty / doody." For example, the endless standing portraits of the upperclassmen families. Or the way fancy font subtitles are used to poke fun at epistolary devices. And, of course, all the wheezing plot contrivances that propel it, the chance meetings and such. I can't wait to see it again under better circumstances, but I have a feeling it's going to be in and out of here pretty fast. Catch it when you can.

1 comment:

  1. Sir James Martin was the best!

    Nice review.

    - Zach (